Op-Ed: Is 'A Confederacy of Dunces' finally going to be a movie?

Posted May 25, 2012 by Jeff Cottrill
LOS ANGELES – It’s one of the most acclaimed American novels of the past thirty-five years, and its oafish, overweight, over-educated antihero has become iconic. So why hasn’t “A Confederacy of Dunces” been made into a movie yet?
Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly  a character from John Kennedy Toole s  A Confederacy of Dunces   on Ca...
Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly, a character from John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces", on Canal Street in New Orleans.
Paul Lowry
It’s not that they haven’t tried. Legendary Saturday Night Live comic John Belushi was slated to play Ignatius J. Reilly in an adaptation that Harold Ramis was to direct as early as 1982, before Belushi died of a drug overdose that year. Then drag queen Divine, Canadian star John Candy and SNL alumnus Chris Farley were considered – and all three died too. Since then, John Goodman and even Will Ferrell have been in talks to star in a Confederacy movie, but nothing has ever come of it, and the project has languished in the much-dreaded “development hell”.
But on Tuesday, Vulture, a blog run by New York magazine, reported that James Bobin, co-creator of the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, is currently negotiating with Paramount Pictures to bring John Kennedy Toole’s classic book to the big screen. Adapted by Phil Johnston (who wrote Cedar Rapids), the film will reportedly star Zach Galifianakis.
Written in the early 1960s but not published until 1980 – eleven years after the author’s death – A Confederacy of Dunces tells the absurd, hilarious story of Ignatius, a three-hundred-pound, self-absorbed, immature, yet highly intellectual and philosophical young man who considers himself “the avenging sword of taste and decency”. At thirty, he still lives with his widowed, alcoholic mother, Irene, in New Orleans. After a car accident with severe financial consequences, Irene persuades Ignatius to get out of the house and get a job, with disastrous results: he tries to start a workers’ revolution at a pants factory, and then he fails spectacularly as a hot-dog vendor.
Aside from its rich mix of high and low comedy and its quirky, original cast of characters, Confederacy is also renowned for its vivid depiction of early-1960s New Orleans and its colourful residents. After a slow start, the novel became very successful and eventually won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Toole, and it’s now considered a canonical book of Southern American literature, alongside the works of Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
So once again, why has Confederacy been so difficult to turn into a film?
“It’s the movie everyone in Hollywood wants to make but doesn’t want to finance,” Ferrell has said. To a Hollywood establishment that relies mainly on sure-fire action blockbusters and other formulaic genre flicks for its bread and butter, Confederacy must seem to be a hard sell to today’s mainstream movie audiences. Its pompous and self-deluded (yet strangely appealing) lead character, who blames all of his problems on the goddess Fortuna, and with his social ineptitude and gastrointestinal issues, is hardly any competition for the likes of Will Smith or Angelina Jolie.
As Cracked’s David Wong once put it: “This film will always be the weird girl at the bookstore, the enigmatic one who listens only to bands you’ve never heard of and who just rolls her eyes when you try to make a joke. Hollywood doesn’t need that girl, not with a line of slutty cheerleaders right behind her.”
In addition, much of the novel’s humour comes from the writing itself – such as the tone Ignatius uses when writing letters and essays, as well as Toole’s own descriptive narration. This has posed a challenge to screenwriters trying to adapt the book into cinematic storytelling; Buck Henry, Ramis and Stephen Fry are among the established comedy writers who have failed at it so far. It also explains why every attempt at a Kurt Vonnegut movie adaptation has been unsatisfying on some level (particularly the execrable Breakfast of Champions movie from 1999) and why Henry’s screen treatment of Catch-22 didn’t work. Adapting the story is often easier than adapting the storyteller.
And then there’s the old “curse” rumour. Four actors who were considered for the lead – Belushi, Candy, Farley and Divine – have died, as did the woman who was arranging to have the film shot in New Orleans in 1982. Toole himself committed suicide in 1969 (the book was later published thanks to the efforts of his mother), and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina may have permanently damaged any chance of a movie capturing the authentic spirit and atmosphere of the old New Orleans.
The closest Confederacy has come to getting filmed was in 2007, with a screenplay co-written by Scott Kramer and indie legend Steven Soderbergh. The cast was to include Ferrell (wearing a fat suit), Lily Tomlin, Drew Barrymore, Mos Def and Olympia Dukakis, among others. The script got as far as a staged public reading by the cast. But once again, the studio chickened out.
“It’s a mystery,” Ferrell told Slash Film about the abandoned project in 2008. “For some reason, that’s a very scary project for people to take on, and I don’t know why... They didn’t have every single scene in the book, but it was a really nice effort.”
So now it’s Zach Galifianakis’ turn. Will Confederacy finally hit the big screen – and if so, will it be any good? Even if it's the kind of movie that offends Ignatius' refined tastes (and makes his pyloric valve clam up), it's unlikely to tarnish the literary status of its source, widely regarded as a comic masterpiece.